Free family law clinics scheduled across the state
March 8, 2019
More than 20 free family law clinics are scheduled around the state, and many more are expected to be held this year to help poor people resolve civil legal issues.
The Access to Justice Commission and the Mississippi Volunteer Lawyers Project are working to schedule free civil legal assistance clinics for residents of all 82 counties, as they did in 2018.
Chancellor Jacqueline Mask of Tupelo, co-chair of the Access to Justice Commission, signed orders in a variety of family law cases on March 4 in Union County Chancery Court in New Albany during the First Chancery District’s first free clinic this year. Eight more free legal clinics are scheduled at a rate of one a month throughout the district that includes Alcorn, Itawamba, Lee, Monroe, Pontotoc, Prentiss, Tishomingo and Union counties.
“We are trying to assure that our legal system is reaching out and meeting the needs of people that are at or below the poverty line,” Judge Mask said. “Clearly the need is there by the numbers that have been assisted.”
Twenty-eight people received assistance from about a dozen lawyers at the March 4 family law clinic in New Albany. Participants needed help with irreconcilable differences divorces, contested divorces, child custody and visitation issues, child support modification and enforcement and estate issues.
Judge Mask expressed appreciation for the lawyers’ volunteer work. “We can’t do these without the local lawyers.”
On March 1, 18 people attended a free legal clinic in Mendenhall to get help establishing guardianships. Lawyers from Hattiesburg, Monticello, Magee and Raleigh assisted families who couldn’t afford to hire them. People who came for help were from Simpson, Smith, Covington, Jefferson Davis and Lawrence counties.
Chief Justice Michael K. Randolph visited the guardianship clinic in Mendenhall to thank the lawyers for their volunteer work. “There are people struggling out there that need legal help but can’t afford it,” Chief Justice Randolph said as he visited with lawyers at the Simpson County Courthouse. He said that every member of the Court supported what they were doing and encouraged them to continue.
Mississippi Volunteer Lawyers Project Executive Director Gayla Carpenter-Sanders worked with local chancellors and the chancery clerks of the 13th Chancery District to organize the guardianship clinic. Chief Justice Randolph commended Chancellors David Shoemake and Gerald Martin for co-sponsoring the guardianship clinic and making their entire judicial staffs available to assist. He also commended the Chancery Clerks for their invaluable assistance.
Jefferson Davis County Chancery Clerk Charlene Fairley said the free clinic helps people and the court. “We get a lot of people coming in that are raising their grandchildren or nieces and nephews. They need proper paperwork to get them in school.
We are just happy that the attorneys will take their time to offer their services.”
The volunteer attorneys prepared documents for the clinic participants seeking guardianships. Chancellor Shoemake and Chancellor Martin were at the clinic to sign orders in any guardianship cases that could be brought to completion. Many of the cases require more steps before they can be finalized. Judge Martin told Carpenter-Sanders, “We will accommodate you. If I have to set a special setting, I will.”
Attorney Benton Evans of Monticello was among the volunteers. “These are people that need help. It’s satisfying to see them getting the help they deserve,” he said. Without a legal guardianship, grandparents or other relatives taking care of children can’t enroll the children in school or apply for medical assistance or programs such as the WIC nutrition program. “They end up taking on those expenses on their own because they are not able to access those benefits.”
LaTanya Allen of Madison, who will start law school this summer, helped prepare documents at the guardianship clinic in Mendenhall. She has seen people struggle to represent themselves in Chancery Court, where she worked as a court administrator and certified court reporter. “There are so many people that want assistance, but they just don’t know how to ask,” she said. “To me, the biggest thing is giving people their dignity.”
The free family law clinics across the state are designed to give people enough basic legal advice and directions so that they can handle simple legal matters on their own in Chancery Court. Attorneys at the legal clinics will help clients prepare documents, give limited legal advice and help them get ready to go to court on their own.
Judge Mask said that she has seen an increase in self-represented litigants in the courts. The clinics help walk them through the process. “Historically when pro se individuals would file their own paperwork, it has not been sufficient. It’s often difficult to determine what issues they are pursuing in court based on the pleadings.” With free legal help, “it is a good thing for them to start their case on the right track having the proper pleadings. It moves them along. It cuts the time that they have to be in court significantly....They understand the process better. It makes the case move faster, it gives them relief quicker, and it gives the court the information that it needs to make a decision.”
Family law clinics usually handle cases such as uncontested divorce, legal name change, emancipation, guardianship and expungement. The kinds of matters which may be addressed vary at the different clinics. Clinic topics and limitations are posted on the clinic schedule on the Mississippi Judiciary website at https://courts.ms.gov/Legal/CivilLegal.php, or on the Mississippi Volunteer Lawyers Project website at http://www.mvlp.net/pro-se-legal-clinic-schedule/.
Here is a list of scheduled free clinics. More clinic dates and locations will be added. Check the websites for updates.
• Greenville, March 20, 9 a.m., Pro Se Legal Clinic, Washington County Courthouse;
For more information about the subject matter of a particular clinic, and to determine eligibility for free legal assistance, call or e-mail the Mississippi Access to Justice Commission at 601-960-9581 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or the Mississippi Volunteer Lawyers Project at 601-882-5001 or email@example.com.